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Sherman Says: Famous Civil War battlefield a magnet for personal reflection

GETTYSBURG — Dozens of people of all ages strolled along the side of the road, mostly in silence. No one had to explain to them the sanctity of where they were walking, nor the significance of the date.

We were on sloping ground, just east of the Emmitsburg Road in Gettysburg, Pa. Here, Union forces held against Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863, at “The Angle,” a protective stone wall, parallel to the road. It is also known as “The High Water Mark of the Confederacy.” Author William Faulkner may have described it best in “Intruder in the Dust.”

“For every Southern boy 14 years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long, oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other, looking up the hill, waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances.”

It was the deadliest day in the Civil War. Here, on this site, people came silently, like moths drawn to a flame. Without words, they wanted to understand the outcome and ponder the setting sun.

One of those persons was Mike Seeley, a Union army re-enactor from central Florida. He was in character as Major Gen. George N. McClellan, former commander of the Army of the Potomac. He was puffing a stuffy cigar, as our paths crossed.

Seeley takes his role as a living historian seriously. He joined the Confederation of Union Generals in 2009 and soon gravitated toward McClellan.

“Two members of COUG came up to me, saying that they had been observing me and that I really reminded them of George McClellan. I began to research McClellan, and found him to be a very interesting and controversial individual. We also shared the same physical stature and height. He also held a very different and interesting view of the war, which is never heard of nowadays,” Seeley said.

Just behind us was the small stone block commemorating where Confederate Gen. Lewis Armistead fell, mortally wounded, at the peak of the attack. Small rebel flags had been placed around it, as were laminated photos and magazine articles, paying tribute to his bravery. A few paces away stands a similar stone, marking the spot where Union Lt. Alonzo Cushing (formerly of Fredonia) died directing federal artillery into the rebel line. Flags ringed his memorial as well, but they were the stars and stripes.

A site once so polarizing was embraced by all who came to Gettysburg on that 150th anniversary weekend. Seeley headed off toward Hancock Avenue, the narrow, two-lane battlefield road clogged this evening by wide-eyed newcomers and well-schooled army descendants, alike.

A site known as the East Cavalry Field draws fewer visitors, because it is not connected to the primary battlefield. There, near a bend in the rural road, stands a weathered white monument to the U.S. First Maryland Cavalry. These men, along with Union Gen. George A. Custer’s Michigan Wolverines, are credited with preventing Confederate horsemen from flanking the northern army, on the battle’s climactic day.

For the first time in more than a century, my great-great grandfather’s musket was back at Gettysburg. I said a silent prayer for the 50,000 men who were killed, wounded or listed as missing there, giving their last full measure of devotion.

I aimed the empty musket at the distant woods and pulled the trigger, just as I have at home, countless times before. This time, it sounded different. It felt different.

David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at dsherman@beenews.com.


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